This 5 mile round trip hike takes you past the dunes onto a salt flat. Remember hiking on sand is much harder that solid ground and heat can be brutal here. Bring water and start early in the day. The dunes are bigger here and there is much less other life due to that fact. Its a landscape of pure white with intemittmant desert scrub brush.
When walking around the dunes at White Sands it is good to keep your eyes looking at the ground for many reasons. First, when the sun is not out, you are never sure what little critter will dart out in front of you. Most obviously a footprint is a key indicator if it was man, dog, or something else. In addition, looking at the sand can show you the more subtle effects of the wind on the dunes. The picture here shows some of the interesting patterns that the wind can make on the sand even on a daily basis. Little mountain ranges or waves? You decide. The beauty of these patterns is even more interesting when viewed up close.
About four miles from the Visitor Center on the Loop Road is the Interdune Boardwalk Trail. The short trail is on an elevated metal boardwalk. It is the only trail in the park that is accessible for wheelchairs. Beware the metal planks and hand rails can pack quite a shock when walking on the boardwalk so be careful. The trail will take most five to ten minutes to walk each way.
About half way down the trail there is an interpretive area where rangers give talks. It is shaded and relatively comfortable to sit. At the end of the trail there is a viewing area with a fairly good panoramic view of the dunes.
About 2.5 miles from the Visitor Center is the first hiking trail. Dune Life Nature Trail introduces you to a wide variety of interdunal features and plant life. While it is only a one mile loop it will take you about forty minutes to complete. To keep you from getting lost on the Dune Nature trail there are metal rods in the sand that have white and orange colors
One of the great things the National Park service does on the trail is to provide exhibit panels that provide information oriented both to small children and adults. For example, information is provided on lizards that is understandable to children as well more advanced text for adults.
One of the first things that become clear on the trail is how difficult it is for life to survive on the dune field. There are no nutrients in the sand such as nitrogen, potassium or phosphorous to allow plants to grow. So plants have to develop a cyanobacteria layer that will eventually form a sort of popcorn soil that will allow seeds to sprout and plants to begin growth. There are several good exhibit posts that provide this information.
While animal life is hard to come by during the day we did see both a stink bug and a lizard on the trail. Both moved rapidly to get out of the sun and seek shelter.
There are only two short climbs on the trail that are the least bit difficult. Other than that it is an easy trail but be sure and wear sun glasses, sun screen and protective clothing when you are on the trail.
Nearly everyone who enters the park takes the full sixteen mile Dunes Drive Loop Drive. It is the only way to access the park. Along the first few miles of the drive there are frequent markers providing information about how dunes are formed or explaining what you are looking at.
The drive if you do not stop will take you about forty minutes. The scenery along the Loop Drive slowly changes as you progress into the Heart of the Sands Area. This area also contains areas for sand sledding and picnics. There the gypsum sands, particularly when the wind is blowing, nearly overtake the road with their snow like powder making visibility difficult at times. You will also see little piles of gypsum that are pushed to the side of the road by the Park Service Vehicles to allow for better traction and visibility along the drive.
Driving into White Sands National Monument one of the first things that strikes you is the design of the visitor center. It is immediately clear that great time and energy when into its construction. It was completed in 1938 as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program. The building is considered to be of Spanish Pueblo Revival style. The walls of the building are constructed from adobe mud bricks. The bricks are sixteen inches long, ten inches wide, and four inches thick.
The visitor center contains a few interesting exhibits of the history of White Sands, how the dunes are created and the flora and fauna of the area. There is an approximate twenty minute film on the dunes that is worthwhile seeing and helps orient you to the park.
Sand Sledding is the popular activity on the dunes. It really is so much fun. They sell little round plastic sleds in the gift shop for ~$15. You can return them the same day if you want for a $5 refund. (No need to wax the sled). We brought a larger softer snow sled along and that worked as well.
The dunes that work best for sledding are really quite steep! Scary for the adult first timers!~ The plastic sleds at the gift shop are thin which leads to a bumpy ride! Bring a soft sled if you have a bony butt!! Tons of fun!!
When we arrived at the White Sands National Monument the Visitor Centre was shut – while the park opens at 7.00 am the centre only does so an hour later at 8.00 am. Besides, we were too keen to get to the sands themselves to stop here even if it had been open. But we did stop on way out – to use the rest-rooms, see the displays and check out the shopping opportunities.
The exhibition area is not extensive but there is lots of interesting information about how these gypsum dunes formed and developed here, the wildlife that (perhaps surprisingly) thrives in this harsh environment, and also about man’s interaction with these wide open spaces, including the space programme and other scientific use, not all of it necessarily to be commended; the Trinity Site where the first nuclear device was detonated in July 1945 is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.
I was impressed by the shopping here – there were plenty of high quality gifts and souvenirs including Native American crafts, jewellery, and very good photos of the dunes. We didn’t buy any of the latter as we had been so busy taking our own! But I was pleased with the delicately painted Christmas tree ornaments that I bought as presents for family. We also got some cold drinks and snacks to enjoy at the picnic tables outside before heading south to Las Cruces.
This is my last tip; if you wish you can return to my Intro page.
The Alkali Flat Trail is the only trail of any real length in the park, at 4.6 miles round trip. It should not be undertaken without proper preparation, as there is no shade in this harsh environment, and walking on these shifting sands is not always easy. But even if you don’t fee l you can walk the full length (and we didn’t), just ten minutes’ walk along here is enough to get you into a different world – the crowds are left behind and you can easily find a corner to yourself. There are far fewer plants here, and the landscape is even more strange and striking.
The Alkali Flat itself lies at the end of the trail. This is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, a lake that filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered 1,600 square miles. We didn’t make it that far, but nevertheless the trail gave us plenty of opportunities, as the park brochure indicates, to enjoy the spectacular scenery. And despite the fact that sun had climbed a little higher by the time we got here (about 9.30 I think), the photo opportunities were still excellent. The white sand stretches for miles, and beyond the dunes we could just see the mauve-grey hues of the Organ Mountains, which we were to pass later in the day on our way to Las Cruces.
After about half an hour or so of exploring and photography we made our way back to the parking lot. By this time it had got a lot busier, with children playing on the dunes and a coach-load of tourists arriving. I was amazed that some of these set off on this trail dressed very inappropriately – I even saw one woman in high-heeled sandals! I suspect she didn’t get far, though we didn’t stick around to see. If you plan to walk any distance on this trail, please pay heed to the warnings on the park website:
“The trail is marked by white posts with orange reflective tape at the top [see my photo four], so look carefully for the next trail marker before continuing. If you cannot see the next post because of blowing sand or dust -- do not proceed. Turn back. The strong winds, especially in the spring, can reduce visibility to a few feet, making it easy to get lost. Please be sure to sign in and out at the register at the trailhead, so we know you got back safely.
There is no shade or water along the trail, and summer temperatures can exceed 100 degrees F (38 ° C). Heat-related illness is common in warm weather and can be fatal. Hike during cool times. Carry food and at least two quarts of water. Rest, eat and drink when tired.”
The Interdune Boardwalk is an easy elevated trail of about 600 metres (there and back). It leads through a fragile interdune area to a scenic view at the top of a dune. Interdune areas are where all plant life in the dunefield starts. The interpretive boards here describe the various plants that manage to grow in this harsh environment and also explain how they get their first footholds and gradually colonise the desert. The plants make interesting subjects for photography, although because of them the area lacks the other-worldliness of the deeper reaches of the park.
This was our first stop in the park, and just right for a pre-breakfast stroll. It got us in among the dunes while the light was still good, although if I were to visit again I think I would head straight for the far end of the loop drive even if it meant driving a little further before stopping, as there were quite a few people on this boardwalk even at that early hour and it would have been good to have a more peaceful introduction to this eerie landscape.
One bonus here is that the trail is fully accessible for people using wheelchairs, which otherwise must be a real challenge to manoeuvre on the unstable ground provided by the sand.
Be sure to explore the dunes, they are unique and beautiful. Bring something that can be used as a sled - a cardboard box would work well - because you will want to slide down the dunes. I didn't come prepared, but slid down on my bottom anyway because I just had to try it.
If you want to enjoy the park from the comfort of an air conditioned car, the park loop road takes you 7 miles into the dunes. Part of the road is paved in other parts its simply the gypsume dunes themselves plowed and packed down to provide a road.
There are many facts regarding this national park, most of which can be found in the website given below. I will highlight just a few given from the same website:
Size of the White Sands National Monument:
224 square miles
50 - 60 feet
Amount of Gypsum Sand in the White Dunes:
approximately 4.5 billion tons
Your kids will have great fun sliding down the sand dunes, and the White Sands National Monument has a visitor center which gives away plastic saucers specifically for this activity.
There are special events held regularly and guided tours, and so it is wise to drop by the center and see for yourself what is available. In our case though, we did head off directly to the White Sands because I was too excited to see what was in the park and because we arrive when it was almost close to sunset. But the park ranger told us that there was a guided tour at 630 PM and told us that the meeting place was somewhere in the dunes.
There are ranger led activities, one of which is the Sunset Stroll Nature Walk which starts at varying times depending on when sunset is that particular day. Inquire at the visitor center and reserve your spot. The walk itself meets about five miles into the park at a sign marked appropriately enough “Sunset Stroll,“ right on Dunes Drive, the main road in the park. It is a casual walk, stroll is a good name for it as you don't go particularly far. The ranger gives you little tidbits about desert life especially regarding the various plants that thrive in the harsh conditions. You stay on the dunes right up to sunset and then everyone makes their way back to the trail head and cars. You pretty much have to leave the park immediately after that as the gates are closed when it gets dark. This is well worth doing and free.